“To interpret, to quote – yet only to have witnesses, also friends.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 2, p. 756 (November 1969), my translation.
When we quote someone, we often seem to do so in order to appeal to some kind of authority. We use a statement of Arendt, for instance, in order to shed light on a contemporary event or phenomenon that calls for our attention. We consider her as a “theorist” who supposedly has “relevant” things to say that may help us “solve” a contemporary problem of understanding. We ask ourselves: “What would Hannah Arendt say?”
For several reasons, however, this practice is problematic. Firstly, as Arendt herself repeatedly insisted, thinking, understood as the never-ending attempt to make sense of events, experiences, and phenomena that occur, is an activity that we can only perform for and by ourselves. Secondly, by “applying” an authoritative “theory” to concrete events, we run the risk of explaining them away, rather than to “save the phenomena” in their concrete particularity. Finally, we run the risk of doing injustice to the “authority” in question. Arendt’s work is much too multi-vocal and perspectival for it to be reduced to a bag of “relevant” propositions that we can use at will. Much of what she says is more complicated and puzzling than it may seem, and requires a serious and sustained effort of interpretation. “Results” are by no means guaranteed. In this sense, the self-evident practice of quoting her every week entails the risk that she becomes all-too-familiar to us, that she is turned into someone whose “convictions” we no longer question, but complacently apply.
The use of Arendt as an authority becomes especially problematic when she is read in what could be called a “pessimistic” or “nostalgic” way, as if the most important thing that we can learn from her consists in a “diagnosis” of “our time”, which entails the claim that politics has been “lost”, that culture and education are in “crisis”, etc. By reading her this way, we run the risk of reinforcing an “objectifying” picture of our contemporary situation, as if the terms “loss” and “crisis” refer to objective facts that are “out there”, rather than to conceptual interventions that may (and perhaps should) invite our own counter-interventions. What is more, we run the risk of placing ourselves on the side of the few who really “got it”, against the many who still do not get it and will perhaps never get it, lest they start reading – and quoting – Arendt.
This is not to say that there is no basis at all in her work for reading her like this, but it is at odds with what may be considered as a more promising and liberating reading – a reading which invites us to begin something new, both in thinking and by acting, however difficult this may seem to be. Invoking Arendt as an authority, by contrast, may precisely serve as a substitute for thinking, rather than as its starting point.
By taking as our starting point a quote about quoting, we hope to make the practice of quoting Arendt into something uncommon, something unfamiliar. The quote in question, cited above, is a singular entry from Arendt’s Denktagebuch, the “thinking diary” that she kept from the early fifties until a few years before her death, and which she never intended for publication. The sentence is from November 1969, when she was working on what would become the first volume of The Life of the Mind, called Thinking, in which she addresses the question, what are we “doing” when we do nothing but think.
The meaning of the sentence – perhaps “meditation” is a better term – is by no means easy to grasp. It appears as a moment of self-reflection, a moment in which she stops, steps back, and thinks about the very thing she has been doing in her notebook: to interpret, to quote. It almost reads as a warning: make sure you consider these interpretations and quotations only as witnesses [Zeugen], also friends [Freunde], rather than as – we are tempted to add – authoritative statements, or – to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own – nuggets of pure truth to keep between the pages of your notebook and keep on the mantelpiece forever.
What does it mean to consider the practice of “interpreting, quoting” as a means to have “witnesses, also friends”? In the entry that immediately follows, Arendt uses the word “friend” twice: “Thought speaks with itself (as with a friend)…” and “In thought, the self is a friend…” Only two entries earlier, she had written that critical thinking consists in a giving-of-account [Rechenschaft geben] in a dialogue with oneself. She cites Kant as the genuine representative of this form of thinking, who had distinguished the quaestio facti – how one comes in possession of a specific concept, or what the origin of a specific term is – from the quaestio juris – with what right one possesses and makes use of a specific concept.
The process of a giving-of-account in this latter sense requires that you are friends with yourself. If there is too much distance, you do no longer talk with yourself, and the inner dialogue comes to an end. Yet the activity of talking something through also comes to an end when there is not enough distance, when you do no longer disagree with yourself at all. As Arendt writes earlier in her notebook: “Only because I can speak with others, can I also speak with myself, i.e., think. Ergo: Aristotle is not right: A friend is not “another self”, rather, the self is another friend.”
Perhaps it is here that we should bring the notion of a “witness” into play. The figure of a witness may be described as someone who testifies to an event that is beyond our own immediate experience, something we were not there to see with our own eyes, perhaps something unheard of. In the entry on critical thinking mentioned above, Arendt notes that our conscience finds its origin in our activity of thinking in the sense of a giving-of-account of something, in a dialogue with ourselves. In another Denktagebuch-entry, written in December 1969, so one month later, she uses the notion of a witness precisely in the context of explaining the workings of our conscience. When our conscience speaks, it serves as our inner witness by reminding us of something we did, and in calling us to account for it. Obviously, the point here is not that we were not present at the actual event, but that we do not want to hear about it anymore.
In the context of our quotation, we may say that a witness confronts us with a certain perspective on our conception of a certain event or experience, perhaps a strange or unsuspected one. Thereby, he or she invites us to give account of our own convictions and interpretations. However, the addition “also friends” is required: only if we approach a witness as a friend – a friendly interlocutor – will the thinking dialogue actually come to pass, will we start thinking something through.
By quoting, we may now suggest, we invoke a testimony by someone who calls us into thinking. By interpreting a quotation, we may add, we gain the opportunity to think something through by and for ourselves, rather than to use it as a means of adding authority to our already existing convictions and interpretations or to use the “answers” it contains in order to “solve” our problems for us. Or, in the words of Walter Benjamin, as quoted by Arendt in her essay on him: “Quotations … are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieves an idler of his convictions.”